Who's under the most pressure during the lead-up to the draft? You'd be forgiven for assuming it's the young men who are waiting to learn whether they'll be picked, but the most pressure is on club recruiters.
On Friday night, the men who call out the names - or these days, punch their selections into a computer -- of the players they pick are under the most intense pressure imaginable. This is their time in the sun and the expectations on them are huge - it can make or break a club for the next few years if their list management teams nails it; conversely, if they stuff it up, it could send the team nosediving to the bottom of the ladder.
It's such a crucial time for clubs. There needs to be absolute transparency and open communication between the various departments - do you need players who can impact immediately, or are you taking a more long-term view? Are you going to draft for absolute best available, or are certain types of players more important?
Good clubs know exactly what they need - they recognise the gaps in their list and they also know what gaps will open up in the future, and they draft accordingly.
It's amazing what happens when a club nails two or three consecutive drafts - look at how the Cats and Hawks set themselves up through their recent dominant eras. Premierships are so hard to win that teams generally need to contend for a number of years in a row, and if clubs have a talented group of kids coming through at the same time after drafting successfully, it can set them up for a sustained tilt at a flag.
On the other hand, teams can find themselves in the doldrums for extended periods if they waste their picks, especially prized first-round selections. A prime example of this is Melbourne during their decade of darkness, when they frittered away high-end picks on kids that for varying reasons didn't deliver. Development and leadership of course play a key role when young players enter the AFL system but the Demons are only just emerging from the wilderness after a much improved recent effort at the draft table.
If I was a recruiter, one thing I'd pay huge attention to is the psychology of the young players. More than ever, the AFL demands so much of a person's mental strength - it really is one of the most rigorous and pressure-filled environments. You are tested day in, day out, and week in, week out.
All the kids who nominate for the draft are talented, but who's willing to make the constant sacrifices needed to survive and thrive? I worry about these young men being pumped up before they're ready - they're almost celebrities before they even make it onto an AFL list. So I'd pay a lot of attention to their personalities, which is where the clubs' pre-draft interviews become so important.
I remember being grilled so hard in some of my chats with clubs in my draft year back in 1998. They delve so deeply into all areas of your game - I remember one club coach drilling me on one errant kick from an Under 18 Championships match from earlier in the year, asking me why my skills let me down at such a crucial moment. I couldn't even remember the kick in question! But maybe that was the point - they wanted to see how I reacted under pressure in an uncomfortable environment. Those interviews give players a window into the level of scrutiny on every aspect of their football and life, and reinforce the need for resilience in the modern footballer.
The draft is always an exciting time for all involved but people can forget it can be such a life-changer. One minute you're just a kid with big dreams, the next you're a bonafide AFL footballer.
And of course, there's the issue of possibly moving interstate. In my draft year, I had been told I was likely to be drafted early and interstate clubs had eight of the first 10 picks, so I knew that I was every chance to be leaving Melbourne. When Sydney called my name out, I was immediately nervous because I'd only ever been to the city once and wasn't sure whether I liked the place. But for me, the city I was living in wasn't that important - I just wanted to start training and gain the respect of everyone at the club. I do remember declining an initial three-year contract though, in favour of a two-year deal, just to be sure!
It's amazing how things turn out. After leaving Melbourne as an 18-year-old, I've never returned in a permanent capacity. Sydney is now my home.
The draft brings with it a swirling mix of emotions - nervousness, excitement, trepidation, self-doubt, but it's also an amazing life-changer for those lucky enough to hear their names called out. It's also a life-changer for recruiters - their decisions could propel their club towards a premiership tilt, or set it tumbling down the ladder. And this year's draft is as wide-open as many can remember, making their job so much harder.
And for the players who miss out on Friday night, they need to realise it's not the end of their journey - the disappointment must drive them to work harder and dominate the state leagues to earn a second chance.